Friday, April 30, 2021

Building Bhakashal - Alignment, Factions and Play

When I was considering the aspects of AD&D I wanted to keep for Bhakashal I spent a lot of time looking at alignment. Alignment in 1st Edition serves some important in game purposes, and used as designed, can work well.

However, few people tend to use it as designed, which suggests it was either too complex, or wasn’t meeting a need at the table. I decided to strip the concept back to its minimal origins, to take only one part of the alignment system, and build off of that, rather than the whole metaphysical framework of alignment absolutes, actual planes for individual alignments, that sort of thing.

To start, I looked at Gygax’s core concept for alignment

I think this is a great foundation for alignment in the game, it is NOT deterministic, not biological, it is cultural, and it is not a driver of behavior, it is an aggregate descriptor of it. Character behavior determines alignment, not the other way around. Alignment does not determine religious beliefs either, that’s a big difference.

Alignment serves as a tool for the ref to help them organize the game world. That’s the sense of alignment I want for Bhakashal.

Alignment in Bhakashal is no longer individual, individuals do not have an alignment, organizations, institutions and communities, or in game parlance factions, have alignments, and these are used to organize the factions into, “mutually acceptable, or at least non-hostile divisions”.

Bhakashal - Alignment Rules

  1. Alignments apply to institutions and groups, also known as factions, for example, in Bhakashal every Noble House, Guild, etc., has an alignment

  2. Lawful factions prioritize and reward groups and cooperation, chaotic factions prioritize and reward individuals and independence

  3. Good factions behave altruistically and avoid harming others wherever possible

  4. Evil factions will harm to achieve their goals and are fundamentally selfish, note that this assumes nothing about why the faction behaves selfishly

  5. Alignment is broad, e.g. two people can agree that a law is needed but have two different views of what that law should be. Violent disagreement is still possible between factions with identical alignments, cooperation and mutual aid is still possible between factions with opposed alignments

  6. Individuals have no alignment, but all creatures in the game (including PCs) have a factional alignment listed, the alignment of the faction that is the most influential for them. Certain classes also restrict membership based on behaviour (e.g. justiciars do not have a listed alignment, but are expected to uphold the law in their actions)

  7. The listed alignment for any monster/NPC is a loose role playing guide, that is how the monster/NPC’s dominant faction generally acts, individual actions can be as complex as desired. It is a role playing cue, not a restriction. All NPCs / PCs / Monsters / Animals have a faction that is the most influential on them, but most belong to more than one faction. The one listed is just the most influential 

  8. Any spell or magic item effects based on alignment are now based on purpose, e.g. protection from evil is “protective circle” and hedges any extraplanar or summoned beings, a Mace of Disruption destroys undead or priests of gods of death, anyone not committed to the destruction of undead takes harm while holding it, etc. 

  9. The gods have no alignment, they are mercurial, obscure and enigmatic

  10. People pray to specific gods based on their “sphere of influence”, so a kind, altruistic person can pray to a god of death or revenge 

Applying It

Factions (Institutions/groups) have alignments, but individual members of those factions do not. The point of the alignment system is to situate the factions in relation to each other, not the individuals. 

Individual monsters don’t have alignments on this system, but organized groups of monsters do. Where you see a listed alignment for a monster, say a chaotic evil red dragon, read that as most collectives of red dragons (e.g. a family, a mated pair) behave, as a group, in an individualistic and selfish way. So this means that, for example, as a default, a pair of red dragons wouldn’t coordinate attacks well, are open to bribery or flattery, etc. so the ref can decide if they want to run this particular red dragon pair as typical or not, maybe choosing “not” gives them a good encounter idea.

For individual monsters use alignment as a LOOSE GUIDE of monster behavior. As a group red dragons will behave in a generally selfish and individualistic way, but that’s just the group, the referee can run individuals in any way desired, or decide this group is different, and once the encounter starts the monster’s behavior should be dictated by the encounter reaction table or the circumstances. Think of alignment for monsters as a source of gentle role playing guidance. 

One might object, “well, why will adventurers go out and adventure now, when there is no evil to slay”? The dragon keeps eating the fine people of Rivenstar, taking their livestock, tearing apart their soldiers, that hasn’t changed. So there will always be heroic tasks to undertake.

For NPCs, it is a similar thing. An individual blacksmith has no specific alignment, but the guild she works with has one. 

Keep in mind, NPCs will be part of multiple factions, a blacksmith could also be a member of the town watch, a religious movement, or a member of a secret organization. So for the purposes of simplification, use alignment to guide NPC behavior by assuming that one of the factions to which they belong has the primary influence on the NPC. 

In essence, NPCs and PCs who behave in a way contiguous with the alignment of their institution will find it easy to progress within the institution. So if some NPC has “lawful neutral” listed for their primary institution’s alignment, they will tend towards cooperation, group focus and are not likely to be too helpful or deliberately harmful as their primary group behaves that way, more or less. It’s an easy to remember default, but you can veer away from it and build that into the story.

The ref can use this as a guide to role playing the NPC, and even spin adventures out of it. So say the party goes to the blacksmith, and say the blacksmith’s guild is listed as “Lawful Good” organization. When the party arrives and tells their story (Brama’s armor was damaged fighting off that dragon that attacked the town last week), a positive reaction roll is interpreted as the blacksmith doing the job for free, to thank the PCs for saving the town (a lawful and good act), a negative reaction roll that calls for a mild response might be interpreted as the blacksmith thinking the party was actually in league with the dragon, and extending the conversation and ask questions to see if her hunch is correct. In this case the alignment of the blacksmith’s dominant group, lawful and good, influences the behavior to be group focused and altruistic. 

For NPCs list the alignment of their most relevant institution, and then list the institution, which will give you a small role playing cue in addition to the group/individual, selfish/altruistic axis. So for example, you roll a random city encounter for the party, it lists a merchant, Lawful Evil (Thieves’ Guild). The RP prompt is that this guy is a merchant, but also working with the Thieves Guild, so maybe he’s a fence, or a money launderer, or a front, or a source of funding for jobs, etc. This also tells you something about the local guild, it is focused on the group and cooperation but selfish. You could make the merchant a reluctant partner that works with the guild as they have proven relatively trustworthy.

Another encounter with a farmer listed as Neutral Good (Temple of Oghma) is more willing to help out the cash strapped party if they agree to do work for the Temple, or for him, in return.

The guidelines for NPCs / Monsters are straightforward, check their listed alignment/institution, and use that as a potential role playing guide for any encounters, knowing that it is just the default, and the individual NPC/Monster can act in any way deemed appropriate by the ref.

Scaling it Up 

Bhakashal is also a setting of warring Noble Houses, competing factions between the temples, the military, the Houses, the coven, the bureaucracy and the Guilds. Alignment gives the ref a simple tool to help organize these factions. I considered giving each Noble House a history and a list of “rival and friendly Houses” with rationales, but then thought the better of it. 

Instead, alignment works as a proxy here, similarly aligned Houses will generally get along, Houses of opposing alignments will tend to conflict, all by degrees. There can be NPCs in lawful Houses that are extremely individualistic, there can be NPCs in chaotic Houses who are very rule following and group focused. The point is to capture the aggregate actions of the faction, not the details. A lawful good House will pursue group priorities and do so as altruistically as possible most of the time. 

All Noble Houses are listed with an alignment, as well as the other institutions within the city. 

So for example, there are two Noble Houses in Bhakashal, House Himmenghost and House Viinos, House Himmenghost is LE and House Viinos is LG. When running the game, the alignment of these Houses can be used to help structure the environment and their interactions.

So there could be a rivalry between these two houses based on their alignment differences, both are lawful, so they focus on groups over individuals, but one House (Himmenghost) is more willing to allow other groups / individuals to suffer to achieve their goals, whereas the other House (Viinos) tries to achieve their goals through mutual cooperation and benefit.

Chaotic Noble Houses allow individuals a lot of freedom to break the rules to achieve House goals, Lawful Noble houses focus on rules and working within the system. There can be rule breakers in Lawful Houses, and rules followers in Chaotic Houses, but they will be aligned against their Houses, picture the individualist within a Lawful organization, always aligned against it, but working from within to “better” it. A chaotic individual in a lawful organization can rise to the top and gain power, but they will always be aligned against the institution, often fighting for their power. A LG NPC in a LG organization will find they fit in well, and don’t have to fight the organization or the majority of those within in order to rise in ranks, but individuals within the organization can oppose them. 

Rather than set specific historical relations between Houses (which would have been interesting but highly time consuming) the alignment system gives the ref a shorthand for framing the relationship between Houses. If the PCs show up at the arena to see an honor duel between rival houses, the ref can pick two houses with opposed alignments and use that opposition to create a quick backstory for the rivalry. Since House Kesht is Lawful Neutral and House Ain is Chaotic Good, perhaps the Lord from House Kesht had publicly accused House Ain as hunters from House Ain have been hunting on House Kesht’s territory (something a Chaotic House would “look the other way” about, and a Lawful House would call out), and a Lord from House Ain challenged that Lord from House Kesht to an honor duel to defend his house (something a Chaotic House would favor, an individual Lord stepping up to action).

A set of minimalistic role playing cues are all that is needed to support ongoing game play. Class, factional alignment, secondary skill and playable group are a broad base from which to get an idea of the character, game play fleshes that out well. Alignment also serves to provide a quick tool to sort out the various factions in the setting without constructing a vast history to organize them. Alignment of Houses and factions will similarly figure into the repute system in Bhakashal, providing reaction modifiers based on the alignments of the individual’s dominant institutions.

One final word, a chaotic evil organization isn’t one devoted to stereotypically evil behavior, e.g. a chaotic evil House in Bhakashal doesn’t have necromancers stealing babies and plans for world domination. A chaotic evil House in Bhakashal is focused on individuals over groups (so it might support a rogue Lord from a rival House) and is willing to break rules and harm other groups to achieve their ends (e.g. breaking a deal with another House) but they don’t have to be perpetrators of horrific acts. They just have to be generally chaotic (prioritizing their House over all others) and evil (willing to do harm to achieve House goals).

Evil and good, chaos and law, alignment here anchors them in behavior, actions, not intentions or anything existential or biological or essential. 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

 Uncertainty, Improvisation and Inspiration - Random Encounters in D&D

Image by Ed Beard Jr (

There are a ton of things about early edition D&D that provoke strong takes, but random encounters are on the top end of that list. Not a week goes by on Twitter that I don’t see someone mentioning how terrible they are, how they serve no purpose, and how they are, wait for it… bad game design.


If I were the kind of person to suggest banning a term or concept from the TTRPG design discourse, it would be “bad game design”. Not because we don’t need the term, or because it doesn’t have value, but because people use it as a stand in for “design I don’t like”. Random encounters aren’t “bad game design”, they serve a purpose (several actually) and work well. They are just a bad fit for certain play styles and games. When you label something like this "bad game design" you are really saying more about the games YOU play and how YOU play them than the design itself.

So let’s take a look at the value of random encounters.

1. Random encounters create a cost for “standing around”. Although it can be fun to role-play doing nothing, eventually that gets old. Having random encounters in the game is a mechanism that keeps PCs from dwelling in indecision for too long. Analysis paralysis is a real thing, and rather than “giving the players clues” and making it about you rather than them, random encounters put pressure on the party to act.

2. Random encounters make the game world dangerous. Games model things, they can’t give you the experience, so they give you something that models the experience. Random encounters mean the game world is filled with challenge, as if you travel anywhere in the game world you are at risk of encountering deadly things. This creates a mood, a vibe, an experience that adds to immersion and keeps the players on their toes.

3. Random encounters drain resources. I have heard MANY people complain that adventures are “too easy”, but that’s often as the party faces the adventures with full resources. Throw a few random encounters in there and suddenly the party isn’t in top fighting form when they arrive at the dungeon.

4. Speaking of dungeons, when you are in a closed environment, random encounters create pure terror in the players. When they hunker down to rest, regain spells, heal, etc., nothing makes them quake in their boots more than realizing that the ref will be making a number of wandering monster rolls. Most dungeons call for 1 per TURN. That’s 6 per hour, so for the minimum 4 hours of sleep necessary to reset even first level spells in AD&D, that’s 24 checks at anywhere from 1 in 8 to 1 in 20 odds (module odds for dungeon wandering monster checks vary widely). That virtually necessitates an encounter, making those “lay low and heal in a dangerous place” plans problematic.

5. Random encounters surprise the ref. Yes, your ref has spent a lot of time preparing the adventure, planning out how to handle your zany antics, but the random encounter, which pops up at unpredictable times, keeps things fresh and fun for the ref too.

6. People often complain that dungeons “make no sense” and are just “monster zoos”. One of the reasons for that is you have disconnected rooms that often don’t interact in any way. That makes them seem procedural and “unreal”, that they “make no sense”. Wandering monsters add texture and some reality to the dungeon. Suddenly there is traffic between areas, an ecosystem, and the dungeon becomes more than just a series of rooms, it becomes a living thing.

7. Here is a big one, random encounters are not always about fighting. This is for a few reasons. One, encounter reaction and morale rolls can keep them from being too deadly, but also, wandering monster tables are often populated with non-aggressive monsters and NPCs. If you look, for example, at the city encounter tables in the AD&D DMG they have a mix of monsters and potentially helpful NPCs. 

8. Random encounters can give you an opportunity to drop some lore about your game world, perhaps drop some clues about future encounters, give some context about events, that sort of thing. Intelligent monsters and NPCs have information that the party can use, and rather than just dong the “your PC would know this” bit, maybe the NPC you just met tells you that piece of information instead. BONUS: players start looking at NPCS and intelligent monsters as sources of useful information, and stop trying to kill everything on sight!

9. Random encounters are a safety valve for the harried sandbox referee. “We decided we don’t want to go to the hidden temple right now [you spent weeks detailing and creating the hidden temple], we want to go to the nearest town and get some henchmen instead.” So now you have to detail a town, or… they hit a random encounter on the way and that keeps them busy until the end of the session. 

10. And one of my favorites, inspiration, random encounters are story prompts, and even better, they are story prompts that force you to do some work as there is often no immediate reason for the result to occur. Say you are travelling from town to town and you roll an encounter with a passing group of pilgrims. Why are they there? Where are they going? Who do they worship? Are they hostile to non-believers? I have spun entire multi-session adventures out of a single random encounter that inspired me to something fun.

These are just my reasons, I'm sure there are others.

To my mind one of the best aspects of random encounters is that they are random, not just in what they produce, but when they produce it. Sometimes you roll multiple misses and the travel is uneventful and easy. Sometimes you roll multiple random encounters in a row and suddenly that “easy” portion of the adventure is much harder. 

As a ref, it is important to put your trust in randomness, which means accepting the runs, good or bad, rather than giving in to the desire to ‘tinker’ with everything. It seems benign at the time, but it just reinforces patterns, and that makes the game stale. And it robs randomization of its may power: making results random, rather than patterened by the ref or group.

There is no question that you can run random encounters badly, not putting time and care into the tables, stripping the monsters/NPCs of any context or nuance so its just like a monster zoo between locations, failing to try and integrate the result into the lore or the adventure itself, etc. Like any game mechanic, they can cause problems.

But the goods outweigh the bads by a country mile IMO, and random encounters have added immensely to my game.

I am not surprised, however, that many players of more modern games or modern iterations of D&D aren’t fans of random encounters. Random encounters, though not completely unstructured, bring uncertainty and unpredictability to the game, and this will wreak havoc with any attempt at “balance” or “challenge rating” for adventures. AD&D is inherently unbalanced, and thus this isn’t a problem. 

But if you like having a “story”, you like ensuring that your games hit certain “beats”, you want the PCs have some sort of loose guarantee of long term success, you want “all players to have a chance to shine”, or you want to ensure that you can predict where the game is going, random encounters are not for you. It would be much easier, and much less inflammatory, if people just said they didn’t like them as they don’t fit well with more story focused games, rather than calling them “bad game design”.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Building Bhakashal - New Classes - The Beastial

Art by A Shipwright on Deviantart

Beastials are the Bhakashal version of Druids. 

They have a d8 for HD, can wear no armor, and can use any weapon of iron or wood. 

Bhakashal beastials each have an animal representing their clan in the coven. 

The coven is responsible for maintaining the Bhakashal blossom in the Ward of House Viinos, they protect and tend to the blossom so it may continue to offer its healing magic.

There are 20 animal clans in the Bhakashal coven. 





















  1. Each Beastial will be a member of a clan. They will have an animal mask representing that clan that they wear during all ceremonies and during spell casting (not required, but practiced). All animal masks for a given clan are essentially identical, with one mark on them known to those in the clan and coven to distinguish them. Beastial masks are carved from the burragh tree, and are dark wine red in color. 

  2. Between clan rivalries exist, though they are mostly friendly and take the form of physical challenges of strength, endurance, cunning, etc. Clans compete against each other regularly to maintain their instincts and skills.

  3. Each Beastial has a woven sithak reed sleeve over their left arm and dresses in white robes. They wrap their left arm in vines of the thornwood tree, and they touch the thorns to draw a drop of blood for each spell they cast. The blood on the thorns is the material component for their spells rather than mistletoe. When not being used the vines are covered.

  4. Beastials are free casters, they get the spells per day of the PHB Beastial, so they may cast up to that number of spells of the appropriate level per day without praying for them in advance. They pray on the spot for their magic. They get no wisdom bonus for castable spells.

  5. Beastials get the ability to identify plant type, animal type and pure water at 1st level

  6. Each beastial will have 3-5 animals from their clan animal totem with them when in the coven at all times, and when adventuring/travelling, will have 1-3 of their clan’s animal with them, under the conditions of an animal friendship spell.

  7. Beastials from each clan try to exemplify one characteristic of their animal avatar, so for the crocodile clan, they might be slow and contemplative, for the panther clan they might be stealthy and furtive, for the peacock clan they might be showy and boastful.

  8. At third Level the beastial gets several abilities:

    1. She has a 5% chance of identifying a lycanthrope in human form, the chance increases by 10% per level to a max of 95% at 12th.

    2. The beastial gains an additional saving throw against lycanthropic infection at a bonus of +1 for every two levels above 3rd, so no bonus at 3rd, +1 at 5th, etc.

    3. A ½ level bonus (round down) to hit and damage against lycanthropes of all kinds (e.g. a 3rd level Beastial gets a +1 to hit and damage against lycanthropes).

  9. At 7th level the beastial gets several abilities:

    1. They may transform into animal form one time for each level of experience, only three of these transformations may be to animals outside of their clan totem.

    2. Each time they transform back into humanoid form they heal 1-4 HP.

    3. The beastial may attempt to force a transformation into were form or out of were form on any lycanthrope, the range is 3”, and the lycanthrope must save versus petrification / polymorph to resist. For every level above 7th the save is at -1, meaning that the Great Beastial can force a transformation with a – 7 modifier. During a full moon the lycanthrope gains a +2 on the save versus being changed to human form, and during a half moon a +1. The beastial requires thornwood and a silver sickle to perform the transformation, and it counts as their only action for the round.

  10. All “Animal” spells by beastials work on dinosaurs (animal intelligence) and giant sized animals.

  11. When a beastial advances to 9th level they must challenge an existing 9th level beastial within their clan for their place of authority in the coven. The total number of beastials in the coven are limited by level between all clans. If desired, a beastial may fight one from a different clan for their position. These fights are always more contentious.

  12. If a beastial beats someone from within their clan, they advance to the next level and get three 1st level beastials from within their clan as followers. If they challenge outside their clan and are successful, they get two 1st beastials from their own clan and one 1st level from the clan of their defeated challenger as followers. 

  13. This process is repeated every level thereafter, and each time 3 followers are gained in the pattern indicated, but their level goes up to 2, then 3, then 4, etc. as the beastial levels. 

  14. When they become a Grand Beastial, and rule the coven, they will be attended to by were creatures for the animal of their clan, at any given time the Grand Beastial for the coven is from a particular animal clan

  15. There is a coven in the marshes which has monster clans instead of animal clans, the animal clan coven in the city rejects them as unnatural, the monster clan coven believes that monsters are as “natural” as animals, and is hoping to merge covens in the future. 

  16. I have written over 200 new beastial spells to add to the existing spells in the PHB. Four are previewed here.

New Beastial Spells

Ambient Water

Level 4, Casting time: 5 segments, Range: 8”, Duration: 1 round/level, Area of Effect: special, Components: V,S,M, Saving Throw: special

This spell allows the Beastial to draw ambient water in the range of the spell to her person. This water then gathers together into a sphere and then splits into approximately 20 or so 2ft diameter smaller spheres, which then surround the Beastial for a 2” radius. Any attack on the Beastial requires that these spheres must be avoided. 

If attacking the Beastial with a melee weapon (or monster):

The attacker makes a saving throw versus spell, if they fail roll on the following table with a d4.

1. Weapon hits a sphere on attack, -3 to hit, -3 to damage

2. Sphere hits the lower body on attack, victim trips and is prone for a round

3. Sphere hits the upper body on attack, slowing the victim to 1/3 movement rate for the round

4. Sphere hits the head, cutting off air and causing the victim to collapse unconscious for 1-4 rounds

If attacking the Beastial with a spell:

Any spell that requires a line of sight (e.g. fireball) requires the caster to make a saving throw, if they fail their spell will be “intercepted” by a sphere, taking the effect of the spell rather than the Beastial. 

AOE spells that are not concentrated before impact (e.g. ice storm as opposed to fireball) cannot be defended against.

If  attacking the Beastial with a missile weapon:

Each missile weapon attack is made at -4 to hit as a globe might interfere with the missile weapon. 

If a sphere is hit it disperses and reforms. If the Beastial is hit by a fireball spell while under the effect of this spell they get +2 to their save and if they are successful they take ¼ damage (the magical spheres dissipate the fireball to a degree). 

The material component of this spell is thornwood, a piece of salt and a berry of any kind.


Level: 4, Casting Time: 6 segments, Range: 2”, Duration: 1 turn/level, Area of Effect: 2” rad. sphere, Components: V,S,M, Saving Throw: neg.

The swamp decomposes things back to their primal form, and devolver allows the Beastial to transform current animal types to their prehistoric form for the duration of the spell. Animals so transformed will be at the service of the Beastial for that time as well. The Beastial can impact 1HD of target creature for every level of experience, as long as they are in the AOE. 

An exhaustive list of all such devolving transformations is impossible, but some examples from the DMG include:

Cave bear, wild giant boar, giant crocodile, giant hyena, Irish deer, spotted lion, mammoth, mastodon, wooly rhino, giant stag, giant constrictor snake, sabre toothed tiger, dire wolf, giant lizard, minotaur lizard, rhinoceros beetle, etc. 

So, for example, a Beastial could transform a family of black bears into larger, more formidable cave bears, and these would be at their disposal. The material component of this spell is thornwood and a pair of claws or talons, one small, one large.

Hive Mind

Level: 4, Casting Time:  segments, Range: 1” per level, Duration: 1 round/level, Area of Effect: 1 target per level, Components: V,S,M, Saving throw: none

Hive mind links together the minds of the Beastial and up to one target per level. All targets must be willing. While under the influence of a hive mind spell the targets:

a) Get a + bonus equal to the number of targets on their saving throws against any mental attacks, +5 benefit maximum

b) May communicate mentally with each other (e.g. even when under the influence of a silence spell) as long as they are within the spell range of the Beastial

c) Once during the spell duration they may collectively try to cast a suggestion on a victim in the spell range of the Beastial, that victim will save at -1 for every 2 targets in the hive mind

The material component of this spell is thornwood, a piece of honeycomb and a hair from each of the targets to be included.

Hunger Plant

Level: 4, Casting Time: 6 segments, Range: 1”, Duration: 1 round/level, Area of Effect: 1 medium sized plant, Components: V,S,M, Saving Throw: none

When the Beastial casts a hunger plant spell the plant targeted immediately transforms into a 14 foot tall “flower” with a half foot diameter thick stem and a large, leathery flower at the top consisting of two large semi-spherical halves which are large enough to swallow a medium sized or smaller creature. The hunger plant has an AC of 7, the same HP and THACO as the Beastial, and an effective striking range of 5’. If the plant successfully strikes a victim instead of doing damage the victim is encompassed by the semi-spherical halves and must make a saving throw versus paralysis every round they are in the flower’s grasp. Those who fail their save are paralyzed for 2-8 rounds. A victim may attempt to cut their way out of the flower, but this will require a saving throw versus paralyzation, and can only be done with a sharp weapon. Others may attempt to cut out the victim, but any attack against the hunger plant does ½ that much damage to the victim as well. The material component for this spell is thornwood and a tooth from a carnivorous animal.

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